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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 18, 2003

Last pair of wild 'alala feared gone

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Despite a decades-long effort to preserve the last free populations of the endangered 'alala, or Hawaiian crow, biologists say the last known pair of the birds in the wild has disappeared.

Scientists suspect the endangered 'alala, or Hawaiian crow, has succumbed to predators and disease in the wild.

Photo by David Scull

If the 'alala is finally extinct in the wild, that leaves just 40 'alala in captive breeding centers on Maui and the Big Island. All of the known remaining birds were raised in captivity.

The last confirmed sighting of the last known pair of wild 'alala was more than 18 months ago in a South Kona forest, and federal officials are not aware of any wild populations today, said Marilet Zablan, acting assistant field supervisor for endangered species for the Pacific Island Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jeff Burgett, the Fish and Wildlife biologist who made the last sighting of the pair June 14, 2002, at Kealia Ranch, is unwilling to label the wild 'alala as "extinct in the wild." There have been unconfirmed reports from people who said they heard the 'alala as recently as a month or two ago, he said.

Burgett said he suspects there are one or two lone birds left, possibly including one member of the final pair, but does not believe there is another pair left in the wild that could breed.

When the breeding season began a year ago, the last known pair "did not reoccupy their territory that they had reoccupied every year for the last decade, so that leads me to suspect that particular pair doesn't exist any more as pair," he said. "That's about as far as I could really go."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a new recovery plan for the 'alala that will focus on the 40 birds left in captivity at the Maui Bird Conservation Center at Olinda and the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Volcano. The agency expects to release a draft of the plan for public comment later this month.

"Our captive flock would require more resources because, quite frankly, it needs to get larger," Zablan said. Of the apparent loss of the last wild birds, she said, "If anything, it shifts our program to focus more on keeping these birds from extinction and making the captive population thrive."

Biologists and others who had contact with the 'alala in the wild describe them as bold, inquisitive, vocal and inclined to "talk" to passersby using a variety of calls. They are large, at 18 to 21 inches long, with feathers tinged with brown, and some consider them the most impressive of the native birds.

Cynthia Salley, who had off-and-on contact with the 'alala for years as the general partner in McCandless Ranch, said she will miss them. The curious 'alala used to seek her out when she made noise on ranch property, but it has been about three years since she saw one, she said.

"We no longer have any, and it makes me very sad, because they're wonderful, wonderful birds," she said.

For years Salley argued that biologists should leave the 'alala on McCandless Ranch alone, and said she believes scientists hastened the final collapse of the wild crow population by disturbing the birds to do research, and by taking eggs from wild 'alala nests for the captive breeding program.

"I'm not saying that this was a major cause — what I truly believe is that avian diseases are really the main cause of their demise — but you have a downhill slope, and the more they interfered, the steeper that slope got," she said.

The National Audubon Society went to court to press for access to 'alala on McCandless because they said it was essential to study and breed wild birds with captive 'alala to preserve the genetic diversity of the species.

The 'alala were once so common that they were considered pests, but predators such as rats and mongooses, and diseases such as avian malaria dramatically cut their populations.

By 1981 the 'alala population was estimated at 30 to 150 birds, but efforts to breed the birds in captivity at Pohakuloa on the Big Island were unsuccessful. Experts finally managed to hatch chicks that year by removing eggs from the nests of captive crows and hatching them in an incubator at the Honolulu Zoo.

In 1991 the National Audubon Society and its Hawai'i chapter sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and McCandless to pressure them to intervene more aggressively to preserve the 'alala. The Audubon Society wanted Fish and Wildlife to follow an 'alala recovery plan that involved capturing some of the last wild birds to breed with captive birds.

Finally officials with the Peregrine Fund under contract with Fish and Wildlife collected eggs from 'alala nests at the McCandless, Kai Malino and Kealia Ranches in Kona and raised the chicks. The plan was to increase the captive population and release birds back into the wild.

The numbers of captive 'alala increased, and 16 'alala that were raised in captivity were released from 1993 to 1997. The number of 'alala in captivity topped 40 that year.

But scientists became increasingly concerned that a natural enemy, the Hawaiian hawk or 'io, was preying on the 'alala. Hawks were blamed for five 'alala deaths in 1997.

Alan Lieberman, program director of Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program run by the Zoological Society of San Diego, said 'alala releases were halted in late 1998 or early 1999 because experts worried too many birds were dying, and the 'alala would lose its genetic diversity if the population dropped too low.

Scientists suspect the deaths had a number of causes, including predators, avian malaria, avian pox, and toxoplasma, a disease carried by feral cats and passed to the birds through cat droppings. Even some of the deaths attributed to 'io attacks may have been examples of hawks preying on birds that were weakened by disease, Lieberman said.

Now experts on 'alala said they may not release captive birds back into the wild for five years or more because they need time to grow a larger, healthy captive population, and prepare habitat that will support the birds.

Burgett, who heads a team that is planning for the 'alala recovery, said the crow is a survivor that hung on in Hawai'i after other native bird populations were long gone.

"The birds have a lot to do with it, and nobody can predict how they're going to go, but we have a good sized flock in captivity," he said. "Birds have been brought back from far worse situations in several parts of the world, and so it's not at all a hopeless case by any means."

Study of the 'alala revealed that their young stay with their parents for a year, a period when the young birds are learning survival skills and habits from their elders. That "culture" of the wild birds that was passed down through the generations will be lost, Lieberman said.

"It's going to be a little bit different 'alala that goes back out than the ones that we lost," he said. "We can never recapture that element."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.